Bodies on the Line: The Streets vs. Pop Culture

bodies_on_the_lineLike so many others, I have been distressed by news coverage about Ferguson, Missouri, where protests broke out following the murder on August 9 of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager who was shot six times by a police officer.

Whether following it on TV or Twitter, there was no escaping the chilling fact that black bodies are constantly under surveillance, policing, and (lethal) punishment, even as protestors emphatically insisted that “black lives matter.”

Images of a militarized police force rendering a predominantly black, low-income suburban community under siege are reminiscent of earlier moments in this country’s traumatic racial history. Think Watts, Detroit or New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. We don’t always have to travel overseas for immediate comparisons.

One of the photojournalists, Scott Olson, who has given us powerful images of the Ferguson protests was arrested briefly while doing his job.  Although some of his photos have already become iconic, there is one that held a great deal of resonance for me.

The image shows a sole black woman standing in the middle of a street, surrounded by tear gas and facing down the riot police shooting off sparks and rubber bullets.  She positions her hands in the air—the recognizable gesture now mobilizing a generation of social-justice seekers simultaneously surrendering and resisting: “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!

Here is a woman placing her body on the line. Her upheld hands indicating all things at once: surrender, despair, resistance, fearlessness and triumph. In that moment, her body will not be silenced, will not be muted, will not be incomprehensible.

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See, black women don’t just show up in solidarity for black men, their sons, their brothers, their fathers, their partners. They, too, are targets. As Kirsten West Savali recently reminded us: “Black Women Are Killed by Police, Too.”

So, when I was asked to provide some reflection on Taylor Swift’s new video, “Shake It Off,” my immediate response was: That silly distraction? Why?!

Of course, I’ve had time to re-watch it to form a deeper analysis, right around the same time that Nicki Minaj released her own video, “Anaconda,” weeks after the controversial cover art for the single.

There is something to be said for listening to and watching comedic and fluffy entertainment in the midst of chaos and anger. Sometimes we need a reprieve, and creating a mixtape of politically conscious Marvin Gaye songs alongside “party music” is perhaps a therapeutic response to rage and despair.

Unfortunately, neither of these comedic videos by Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj provided me with the necessary escapism. They were far too steeped in the racial politics of women’s bodies, the same racialized lens that would cause a militarized police force to descend upon a city with racialized fear.

Both videos make use of backup “twerk” dancers, although Nicki Minaj aligns her own body with these dancers; she creates a multiracial sisterhood with other booty-shaking women. Twerking is that dance craze that has so many parents across this country hand-wringing over the sexualization of our culture. That this dance started in the heavily policed communities of low-income people of color reinforces white fears of black bodies—be they sexualized or criminalized.

When white pop stars such as Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea are rendered “cool” and given “street” credibility for populating their music videos with such black female bodies in the background, they are simultaneously breaching that segregated black space by bringing it into white middle-class homes, thus inciting fears of cultural decline and racial impurity. We only need listen to the anxieties already expressed about the upcoming MTV VMA awards show and the excessive display of “twerking” booties that is sure to be televised. That racialized fear of black female hyper-sexuality also transfers onto the sexualized white female body and the criminalized black male body.

So, when Taylor Swift deliberately positions her awkwardly dancing body in “Shake It Off” as a way to defend her innocence against the constant slut-shaming she has experienced, she reifies her whiteness, her purity. Her rhythm-less dance moves distance her from the hyper-sexualized racial body in a way that positions her as somehow morally “safe” when compared to her white female counterparts Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus. She also trafficks in white female stereotypes when she positions herself as a failed cheerleader and ballerina, which would be cutesy if the recent commercial for Under Armour, featuring black ballerina Misty Copeland, didn’t remind me of Copeland’s embodied struggles for acceptance in the white elite world of ballet.

Considering the high stakes that black ballet dancers face in which any playfulness would immediately disqualify their bodies as “appropriate” or “feminine,” Taylor Swift’s awkwardness is a form of white privilege. There is also a racialized lens that is applied to this awkwardness, which connotes sexual innocence that protects the pop star from the charges of sexual excess to which she has been subjected.

This is why, as a black female entertainer, Nicki Minaj’s own defense against slut-shaming is not to distance herself from these hypersexual images but instead to embrace them, to poke holes in them, to remix and then signify on them. It is no coincidence that Nicki remixes as a hook the “white girl” vocals from Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back“: “Oh. My. God…Look at her butt!” We can almost imagine Taylor’s own voice here when we see how her appropriation of twerking bodies invites the same incredulity and mockery.  Nicki Minaj engages in parody as well, but her body is also placed on the line—culturally—and becomes the subversive signifier of excess sexuality, which she simultaneously denies to the male onlooker at the end of the video.

At any other time, such videos could be read as resistant responses by female pop stars negotiating public and male gazes; but in this heightened environment of crisis and protests, these performative bodies merely remind us of prevailing racial and sexual fears that threaten to engulf us all. Women’s bodies become the site for either reification or resistance—on the streets and in media.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user marsmettn tallahassee licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 and music video stills via YouTube.

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Janell Hobson is an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender and Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture, and a frequent contributor to Ms.

Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this. I felt confused by the mixed messages sent by these two videos, and your article really helped me understand that Swift’s newest video – which I thought might be a reprieve from her slut-shaming, hyper-innocent internalized misogyny – is really just a different expression of it. Though I don’t believe she was intending to appropriate black culture with the video, she certainly was distancing herself from the Mileys and Keshas, saying if they’re THIS (slutty) then I’m NOT. I’m still not sure how I feel about Nicki, though. At the end of the day, I feel like despite the apparent message of sexual empowerment, she’s still using her (clearly surgically enhanced) body to sell speakers and sports drinks. I understand the need to use product placement to afford to make big videos, but it’s jarring to see such sexual images immediately next to brand names. Consumption (and thus objectification) still comes to mind first. Any thoughts on that?

  2. while I do not take Taylor Swift seriously in any manner, I can’t say her message is nearly as complex as you are giving her credit for. She doesn’t “shake off” the booty dancers – in fact she is celebrating dance in all forms as a way to express yourself. Its seems a little forced to think she is saying anything else. At least she is acknowledging that some people shake their bootys better than others – so thank you Taylor for sparing us (Miley, please….stop!). but Nikki? gross. She needs to grow up.

  3. Loving all of these articles on the sexual politics of the black female body as it relates to Ferguson and the harmful ideas that cause such hatred and violence in our nation! Keep them coming Ms!

  4. Janell Hobson says:

    Jody, I think Nicki is very conscious of what she’s doing – yet she’s not trying to resist. Instead I see her incorporating the corporatization, the hyper-sexualization and playing with these images. I think she’s problematic on one level and yet super tongue-in-cheek on another level.

  5. Interesting take. I can honestly say I’d never heard or seen anything by Taylor swift, realized haven’t missed anything. Love, love, love the nicki minaj video, lots more humor, not to mention she’s got way more talent.

  6. Great post! Black Women’s Bodies on the line: http://www.blogher.com/black-womens-bodies-line

  7. Look you can be part of the “End Twerking Today” club. Yes I agree thats its degrading to women, but don’t drag Racism into a problem just because their was a black women twerking in a Taylor Swift video.
    I really just hate when people just accuse something of racist, just because their is some Mexican/Black person in a video with Whites, and think that the minority is being treated unfairly. Even though they aren’t, in the Taylor Swift video their was 4 Blacks and 2 Whites twerking, so it wasn’t like they were just hiring Blacks to do the Twerking in the video. Don’t be putting two completely different events together just to prove a point that isn’t even there.

  8. Jamie Breen says:

    I do not like Taylor Swift’s song; the lyrics are not as intelligent as I feel she is, and I fear she is giving up her love for song writing just to please a certain group of people (mostly teens). And to be honest, I don’t even care for her music in general. But although this song is, in my opinion, not very good, I just can’t seem to agree with the statement I keep reading all over the internet, the statement that claims this video is racist. It seems obvious to me that she is embracing all dance, no matter where the dance originated, or where the dance is popular now. Even though she is embracing different dance, she is just not good at it! She’s laughing at herself, her own clumsiness and quirky self. She’s saying, “I’m going to dance how I want to, even if it doesn’t look good.” Why does being awkward mean white privilege? Why does one need to be white in order to have a goofy side? If she were black, and the video were to play out the same exact way, how would your response be? Her pureness comes from her innocence, not the color of her skin. And for you to say otherwise is actually quite racist. I hope I just misunderstood. Now, Nicki Minaj’s video deliberately made fun of women with smaller, or less curvy bodies. Literally saying, “fuck you if you skinny bitches.” As a woman who is naturally smaller on top, and much smaller on the bottom than Miss Minaj, I have to say it’s offensive. If the message is to love your body no matter what, then I am all for it. But this is, yet again, a celebrity message saying to love your body only if it looks like ______. Although perhaps not racist, this is still prejudice.

  9. I must say that I think too many women in the music industry sadly let sexism conquer them.

    Minaj could do so much more. Focus is always on the body. And the music is undermining her talent.

    Sure, you can excuse such behaviour with “you can’t succeed withouth showing some sexy”, “you don’t sell”, that is bending for the pressure. As long as there are females still doing that, choosing that, they are enforcing sexism and the undermining of womens musical talent.

    Most often we see a kind of “I can still be sexy” statement by woman artists – after they have; married; had a child; turned 30. This is so common, and few seem to respond to this in a logical way. Why do they need to “prove” their “hotness”, when they are artists, musicians, singers?

    The day Steven Tyler , or any male in the music industry does the same thing: have a need to by “sexyness” prove they are still “valid artists”, we are in an equal enviroment.
    I cannot see that Ms.Minaj is conscious enough to change the industry. Her choicea makes it even harder for women to be appreciated by their music and talents. Just the same as Ms. Miley Cyrus’s, Lady Gaga and so on.
    There was a time that we HAD to get undressed to be on stage performing, nowadays we have a chance to choose. We have a right to demand the right to not prove we “still are attractive”, we can be appreciated by talent. And start working on this farspread disease of self-objectification.
    As a woman, and rapper myself, I can sadly not support such destructive behaviour as this. We can be sexual as women, we are, we don’t need to prove it. We need to encourage the next generations of females into the insight that we need not be desired as sexualized bodies if we are artists, we need our talents, our stories that are from our point of view appreciated. Even if there os no booty shaking in the vid.

  10. Janell Hobson says:

    Ben and Jamie, Taylor Swift became racially problematic once she incorporated black female twerking bodies into her narrative. She could have made her carefree, awkward point all by herself. But once she included black bodies, she invited the racial comparisons, hence the reification of her whiteness. Don’t for one minute think these pop-culture narratives are divorced from the larger racial politics of this country.

  11. So your saying that Nicki resisted by actively engaging in her own objectification but Swift reified? If so that makes no logical sense. They both gave into stereotypes; Swift a stereotype on white purity and Minaj one on black hypersexuality. I don’t understand how one was qualitatively different than the other let alone better.

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